As I’ve followed the blogosphere on the Swift Boat Veterans , I realized what I feel isn’t important. But the Iraqis are expecting us to cover their backs. Will Kerry?
Iraqis can take comfort in changes. As other posts & commentators have noted, the death toll is down. And the future in that particular area seems to be looking up. Sure, Iran stirs the pot with Sadr. Still, an Iraqi knows that Iran’s other flank is covered not by an Afghanistan of the Taliban and Al-Quaeda training camps, but one whose real problems (poppy fields, tribal loyalties) are countered by a greater transparency, an opening economy, elections. That Iraqi realizes the freedoms he now knows to choose among newspapers, to gather with his friends gives hope to the dissidents in Iran. Encouraged, they have little desire to change his country but rather their own. Therefore, his future looks brighter. And an Iraqi might suppose Americans would stay from self interest – a world safer for Iraqis is safer for Americans.
And so, surely, America will offer the support Iraq still needs. Surely America will continue to build roads and wells and power lines; surely America will fund schools. Surely, America wants this country to stand sturdy and free. Surely, that is true no matter who is president. And surely, a man who dived in to save a fellow sailor will dive in to the hard work ahead. Nor could such a man sell out Iraq to the UN of “oil for food” and the France of Elf oil contracts. I suspect, however, that Iraqi might feel some hesitation as Kerry describes America’s need to “reach out” to the “international community.”
Kerry’s personal anecdotes today, in 1986, in 1971 (testimony, hearings, review of Apocalypse Now) seem designed to establish his role as a thoughtful man who was there and knew what really went down. Real experience might reassure our Iraqi, might reassure us. When it turns out to be borrowed authority, we understand the temptation to exaggerate. Some of it is ego, some of it may be the feeling that the message is so important attention must be paid in that Senate hearing – even if that attention must be bought by some shading of the truth.
Kerry’s stories, however, implicitly and sometimes explicitly condemned his fellow veterans and argued his officers lied; this was not likely to give him (or his admirers) much pause in 1971, in 1986, even in sympathetic papers today. For many, the verdict on Vietnam is in, discussion over. Kerry wrapped himself in an authority few that reported on him could match. But others were less likely to forget. Is it surprising those very officers surfaced this year?
The pattern he found (by, indeed, adding a dot here or there) may not have been exactly “real,” but its application later also raises doubts. For instance, in those Contra hearings his Christmas 1968 analogy was to lies both governments (conveniently Republican, even if the dates were a bit less convenient) told. But, he might argue, in both cases, the government was not honest. However, as it turns out, the “lies” were also his. When Kerry used that story to criticize American aid to the Contras, his point might seem better than his analogy–the government had not been fully honest. However, we might note that not much later free elections reflected a popular will Reagan saw and Kerry did not. We will never know what free elections in Cambodia would have reflected – nor in Viet Nam. We do know what happened when we pulled out. And so, our listening Iraqi might see a nation with neither black nor white hats, but might also find a worrying pattern.
Kerry has been consistent in many ways. And many might agree with him. Clearly, his anti-war activities had a defining effect on how he saw himself in the last thirty years. Indeed, in his argument for Kerry, Sidney Blumenthal argues:
From his first appearance on the public stage, giving voice as a decorated officer to the anti-war disillusionment of Vietnam veterans, when Richard Nixon and his dirty-tricks crew targeted him, he has uncovered cancers on the presidency. This is why the Bush administration fears him. He has explored the dark recesses of contemporary history, often without political reward.
While many of us are less than impressed by Blumenthal, such rhetoric, and, indeed, with Kerry, this stance is attractive to many. The usefulness of such an emphasis is that it fits with his votes, his speeches, his loyalties.
So why did he feel driven to build the Democratic convention that nominated him around his service during those four months? Does his obsessive mention of his heroism really “prove” his Commander in Chief abilities? He put so much weight on that short (and in uncharacteristic) time – a lifetime’s – that it was likely to collapse under the weight, no matter how deserved the medals, how gallant the actions.
This stand of his youth has adherents today —sometimes, as we look at the anti-war demonstrations, we may suspect a majority. Americans have always been critical of tradition, wary of institutions, admiring of rebels. This tradition, however, ill fits with his “reporting for duty” salute. That march to front stage, reminding us of World War II choreography, implies an acceptance of the discipline of an institution, a willingness to take responsibility rather than to question it, to submerge the ego rather than assert it. In the seventies, that script seemed anachronistic. We may find it less so today. But, Kerry remains a man of the seventies in many ways; we can be excused for worrying about his sincerity. Does he think we want him to be a hero or does he want to be one? Is he too sophisticated for such flag waving, but using it because he feels voters are ripe for ad populum arguments? As Americans we are a bit puzzled; surely someone from another culture can’t navigate these uncertainties.
At the convention, Kerry implies he is a man of action. But he also sees himself as a man of diplomacy. We don’t want aimless acts any more than we want desultory negotiations. Only the ideologues among us (and apparently Kerry himself) are likely to fault the candidates for not immediately taking bold action on 9/11; we recognize information needs to be gathered and assessed before acts make sense. But, then, responsibility requires action. Prufrock’s sense of time (endless time, time for visions and revisions) is Kerry’s “plan.” Let’s talk to the French, let’s talk (the oil for food scandal, the Elf contracts – those we can chat about, too; those, too, perhaps we could have revised over time). I doubt the Vietnamese, the Cambodians, the Nicaraguans, the Iraqis, or the Afghanis felt there was all that much time for visions and revisions
But, we wonder, how does John Kerry, in the end, connect those dots of what he did and thought about Vietnam? We’ve seen others wrestle with these. It baffles us; historians protest that it will take another generation to tell – maybe not then. Politicians make history, they don’t have to do it. But Kerry asks us to see his four months as argument, as authority. So, we ask him, what did he learn? Can he help us see the present more clearly by looking at the past? If it gives him authority, how and why and in what way?
What we might like to know, because in an oblique way it does tell us about him and the present: How does John Kerry feel, in his gut, about the those great disasters–the Viet Cong and the Khmer Rouge, the former of whom still see him as a hero? And, the Iraqi might ask, to whom do we owe loyalty?
How does he define the responsibility of power, power in the form of that seat before or in Congress, over his crew in combat or at meetings in Paris, the power of ideas and economics, of diplomacy or bombs?
If I were an Iraqi, I’d be a tad nervous. Does America see any need to stay? Does Kerry believe that this war was chosen by Bush and Iraq is, well, not America’s problem? How does Kerry see those who bribed suicide bombers? The choices Kerry makes are likely to have an immediate effect on that Iraqi; the effects on us are likely to arrive a good deal more slowly.
Some joke that Kerry only respects those who fight against America and not those who fight with her. That seems facile, but does he sense the power of an idea; does he give their due to the dissidents of Eastern Europe, of Cuba, of South American dictatorships? Perhaps, as Brooks notes, his response to the Varela project is a key. Certainly, Chavez and Castro find Kerry an attractive candidate – not people to whom such heroes as Vaclav Havel feel kinship. We remember remarks about the “drunken Vietnamese” on Christmas eve, the “counterproductive” nature of the Cuban dissidents. These would give little comfort to a dissident in Iran, a newly recruited policeman in Iraq, a tribal leader wanting the best for his people in Afghanistan. Apparently, 90% of the American Vietnamese intend to vote for Bush. Is that a surprise?
I’m no expert, just of a certain age. And I’m willing to admit that most of the world seems to hate George Bush and much of it would, apparently, like us to vote in Kerry. But I wonder how comfortable they would be in that alliance. (Ah, as usual, there is the wisdom of country/western lyrics; “Thank God for unanswered prayers” I’ve thought more than once as I turned from my leftish past to my rightish present.)
My impression, for instance, has been that most Viet Vets are whole. Their lives, in word and action, decision and reflection, indicate that what they did then is of a piece with what they have done since they came back. They have different political allegiances; a large minority will vote for Kerry. But most would recognize our job to cover the backs of those Iraqi policeman. Most feel loyalty to that band of brothers with whom they served. I can’t imagine them describing the coalition as “the bribed, the coerced, the bought and extorted.” And I can’t imagine a man leading a coalition he has described in that way.